Graduation rate of native-born New Hampshirites raises a range of concerns

When it comes to the makeup of New Hampshire’s future workforce, there’s one statistic in particular that worries Tom Horgan.

In general, it’s not the percentage of New Hampshire residents who hold college degrees — because, at least comparatively speaking, that’s a reassuringly high figure. In fact, New Hampshire has one of the most educated populations in the United States.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly a third, or 32.8 percent, of New Hampshire residents aged 25 and older hold a four-year degree or higher. Only eight states in the country have a bigger share of residents with bachelor’s or advanced degrees.

Even less worrying is the statistic that shows New Hampshire’s strong high school graduation rate, which is also among the best in the U.S. More than 91 percent of New Hampshire adults hold a high school diploma — the third-best rate in the country.

No, these aren’t the statistics that most worry Horgan, the president of the New Hampshire College and University Council. What has him particularly concerned is a figure he came across while researching a white paper on the state of the state's higher education — one that could have broad implications for the state’s future ability to fill jobs in its growing knowledge economy.

Culled from the 2005 American Community Survey — an ongoing Census survey that helps the federal and state governments determine where to distribute funding — the figure showed a wide disparity in education between people born in New Hampshire and those who move here.

It showed that New Hampshire’s native residents — that is, those people who were actually born within its 8,952 square miles — are significantly less educated than the state’s general population.

As it turns out, only a small share of New Hampshire residents who hold bachelor’s degrees were actually born in the state. Of the New Hampshire residents aged 25 to 64 holding a four-year degree, only 18.8 percent of them were born in the state — a percentage low enough to place the state 46th nationally for its share of college-educated native-born residents.

Horgan said he was "very surprised" to discover the state’s low standing, "because we perceive ourselves as being so highly educated … but obviously our native population is ranked very low."

Where the figure becomes especially troubling, he said, is when it's considered in the context of New Hampshire’s aging population and slowing rates of in-migration.

Because, as its population grays and fewer people move here, "what’s our future workforce going to look like if we’re not educating our native population?" wondered Horgan.

Reliance on migrants

Like all of New England, and really the entire nation, New Hampshire’s population is getting older. At the 2010 Census, the median age of Granite State residents was 41.1 years old, making it one of only seven states with a median age over 40 — older even than Florida, and almost four years older than the national median age of 37.2. The state’s median age was 37.1 in 2000.

In a report released last year, the nonprofit New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies dubbed the state’s oncoming wave of seniors a "silver tsunami," and said that by 2030, nearly a third, or almost half a million, of the state’s residents will be over the age of 65.

Because New Hampshire has so many baby boomers, its population is going to age very rapidly, said Ken Johnson, a demographer with the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

On top of the state’s aging population, the rate of migration to the state has been slowing over the last few decades, he said.

New Hampshire is unique among many states in that its population is made up of a relatively low percentage of people who were actually born here. Historically, "we import people who already have their college degrees who are not from New Hampshire," said Horgan.

According to American Community Survey estimates from 2008 to 2010, just 44 percent of New Hampshire residents were actually born here.

"Generally about 60 percent of the population of a state is born in that state, so New Hampshire is very unusual in that regard," said Johnson.

The state’s southern regions tend to have a larger share of non-native-born residents than those in the north.

According to the 2006-2010 ACS, for example, only about 28 percent of Rockingham County residents were born in the Granite State. But the county has the state’s highest concentration of residents with a bachelor’s degree — nearly 37 percent of its residents hold one.

Meanwhile, the northernmost Coos County has the state’s largest share of native-born residents — 62 percent of those living there now were also born in the state. It also has the state’s smallest share of residents with bachelor’s degrees. Only 16.1 percent of Coos County residents have a bachelor’s degree, less than half the state average.

"We have historically relied on other states to educate our workforce, and frankly that’s worked pretty well for us in the past," said Horgan. "But it hasn’t necessarily worked out very well for the native population here."

While the state has long benefited from its migrants, it just isn’t attracting people the way it used to.

According to Johnson, migration to New Hampshire has been declining over the last several decades. The state gained 180,00 migrants in the 1980s, 120,000 in the 1990s, and 80,000 in the last decade, he said.

The recession contributed to the slowdown of migration in the latter part of the decade, even resulting in a net out-migration of people from 2009 to 2010 — something that Johnson called "very unusual" and has hadn’t happened in New Hampshire since the closure of the Pease Air Force Base in the early 1990s.

As the economy beings to recover, Johnson said, he thinks the state will begin to experience net in-migration again. But it’s unlikely to reach the same levels that it has historically.

"I don’t think it’s going to go back to the levels it was during the 90s," said Johnson.

The state’s lessening ability to attract people has broader implications for its income streams, Johnson said.

Currently, New Hampshire has the highest median income in the country, at $65,028 per household, according to the 2010 Census.

"Migrants to New Hampshire tend to earn considerably more than people who leave New Hampshire and move to other places, so the income levels in the migration streams will diminish as well," he said.

Economic pressures

To Horgan, these factors point to "some big storm clouds on the horizon," namely in the state’s ability to fill the jobs of the future.

For instance, a Georgetown University study predicted that by 2018, 71 percent of all jobs in the state will require a college degree or some form of postsecondary education.

"I think there’s really serious public policy issues that need to be addressed if we hope to maintain the 'New Hampshire Advantage'."

Everything that gives the Granite State that advantage — its relatively healthy population, its low crime and unemployment rates — are "directly related to the fact that we have engaged and educated citizens," he said.

For Johnson, the disparity in education levels between migrants and the resident-born population "underscores the need to commit resources to education in the state, at all levels, (from) primary and secondary levels to the universities."

But access to higher education in New Hampshire is a cost burden too high for some to overcome. According to a 2010 report by the nonprofit Project on Student Debt, New Hampshire students have the highest average debt burden in the nation. On average, New Hampshire students carry just over $31,000 in student debt — 23 percent higher than the national average.

The state is also the only in the nation that doesn’t offer state-funded scholarship aid, and it has one of the highest in-state tuition costs in the country.

In a piece of good news out of a recently released state Department of Education’s report, there was a 6 percent increase in New Hampshire students entering postsecondary education immediately following high school graduation in 2012.

While the percentage of students entering postsecondary institutions in New England has remained constant in the last decade, it also found that 5 percent fewer are attending state colleges and universities.

Horgan said he understands the economic pressures the state faces.

"I know it’s a tough economic time and demands on scarce resources are incredible, and there are people who have real economic needs and are facing real economic hardships that need to be addressed today, and trying to address the educational future of the state ends up getting put on the back burner," said Horgan. "But if we don’t invest in the future of New Hampshire, we’re not going to be very happy when we get there."


Kathleen Callahan can be reached at

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